Rav Binyamin Zimmerman
Director of Education, Halacha Education Center
Member of Advisory Board, World Mizrachi Shalhevet Program
In this week’s parashah, Moshe turns to Hashem again explaining that he is not the right man to be Hashem’s agent for redemption, for he is an ערל שפתיים, which would seem to indicate he has some impediment associated with his mouth. Hashem does not accept his argument but commands Moshe to go with his brother Aharon to Pharaoh. Interestingly, this command is accompanied by an interlude in the Torah which traces the lineage of Moshe and Aharon, providing the names of their parents (which weren’t explicit in the Torah beforehand) and tracing their lineage all the way back to Levi.
At first glance, the entire discussion seems strange. Moshe had already provided a similar argument at the burning bush, describing himself as כבד פה וכבד לשון, one who is heavy with the mouth and tongue, and both unfitting and incapable of being a representative of Hashem for the nation’s salvation. However, Hashem’s response there seemed to set the record straight. Hashem is the one who provides all the physical capabilities of mankind, and therefore, what Moshe views as a deficiency is not that at all.
Yet if that is so, what is the nature of Moshe’s additional argument in this week’s parashah, repeated before and after Hashem commands him to join together with Aharon on this historic mission, divided in the Torah by a description of Moshe and Aharon’s lineage as descendants of the tribe of Levi?
The Midrashic account of what brought about Moshe’s physical impediment might help provide the answer. The Midrash (Shemot Rabba I, 26) describes the young Moshe growing up in the palace of Pharaoh as being loved by Pharoah and his daughter. However, the young Moshe would take the crown off of Pharaoh and place it on his own head. This alerted the Egyptian astrologers who viewed this as a foreboding of Moshe’s trying to usurp Egyptian rule. Moshe is saved after being put to the test of whether he really has intellect, by seeing whether he would choose shiny gold or burning coals. Moshe initially goes for the gold but his hand is moved at the last second to the burning coals by the angel Gavriel, and he places the burning coal in his mouth to cool it off, leading to the impediments he cites as reasons why he is not a worthy leader of the Jewish people.
The Midrash often cited to children, would seem to be expressing a powerful line of logic behind Moshe’s argument. Moshe doesn’t seem to be merely noting his physical limitations but making it clear that he grew up in the palace of Pharoah, and was constantly being checked to ensure that he was a faithful adherent of Pharoah even if it led to physical deformities in his body. He is a man of the Egyptian palace and completely unqualified to lead a renaissance and redemption of the Jewish people who don’t accept him.
Hashem’s response in both places turns Moshe’s logic on its head. Rabbeinu Nissim (in his Derashot HaRan) explains Hashem’s initial answer that Hashem is looking for a sincere leader, not a sweet talker. Lest the Egyptians or even the Jewish nation feel that the Jews only managed to emerge from Egyptian bondage due to the diplomatic capabilities of their leader, Hashem preferred sending someone who lacked that persona. Essentially, this understanding indicates that Hashem had told Moshe that things he viewed as a limitation were, in fact, the greatest asset for him to be the Divine agent for redemption.
Yet, Moshe’s argument in this week’s parashah is not about the impediment per say, but about what brought it about. Hashem declares that despite his upbringing, Moshe shares the lineage of Aharon his brother, and his DNA is a Levite. Secondly, growing up in the palace of the king might actually be the ticket to his success. He is an individual who grew up without a slave mentality, and therefore, he found no difficulty standing up to the evils he witnessed around him after leaving the palace. His natural instinct had remained alongside his love for his people, and when seeing no one willing to defend the Jews he would do so even if it would cost him his life.
Hashem informs Moshe that your upbringing and even your impediments are not a disability but an expression of what makes you uniquely capable to stand up to Pharoah and facilitate redemption. The Egyptians might have tried to keep you from the crown by placing burning coals in your path, but those burning coals with forever symbolize how your palace upbringing provides you with a background that even your great brother Aharon growing up in the warmth of a Jewish home cannot contend with.
Hashem’s lesson to Moshe is one we might internalize as well. We are often want to think of our limitations and impediments, convinced that they restrict our successes. Yet, Hashem’s answer to Moshe makes it clear: What you view as an impediment is often your greatest asset, and you are uniquely suited to be a prime mover in bringing redemption to the Jewish people and the world.